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Podcast: Better Bike the Car Alternative

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The automobile has driven (pun intended) progress in America at least since the first Model A Ford rolled off of the production line on October 20, 1927. There is also little doubt that cars and trucks will continue to be the most popular form of transportation in the United States for the foreseeable future. But that hasn’t stopped some folks from trying to reduce the number of car trips they take.

In fact, many shoppers purchase an electric bike or an electric trike because they want an inexpensive, healthy, and environmentally friendly way to replace short car trips.

The movement toward reducing automobile trips has also created a new sort of vehicle that is not exactly an electric trike, not quite a velomobile, but still and intriguing car alternative.

If you want to learn more, listen to this episode of The Electric Bike Podcast from EVELO. You can also follow along with the transcript below.

Armando: If an electric bike had a crazy, nerdy cousin, it might be a pedal-assisted velomobile or minicar. These unusual vehicles combine electric bike components with a car’s protective body, windshield and other systems. A great example a velomobile or minicar is the PEBL from Better Bike, a Massachusetts-based company that’s trying to popularize these environmentally-friendly, fun-to-use alternatives to the car.

Well, this is The Electric Bike Podcast from EVELO, and my name is Armando Roggio. In this episode we’re going to meet Nevin Murray, who is the co-founder and chief operating officer at Better Bike, and Erin Cotter Cartwright, who is the marketing director at Better Bike.

Nevin and Erin, welcome to the podcast.

Erin: Thank you.

Nevin: Thank you.

Just Heading To High School

Armando: Let’s start by talking about Better Bike. What was the impetus for the company? Why make a velomobile, minicar like the PEBL?

Nevin: So, Better Bike originally started as a side project. I was a freshman in high school, and I was looking at the seniors in high school, I was watching them drive cars. On one hand, I was super jealous. I really wanted to have that level of freedom but, on the other hand, I was conscious of the environmental impact that that was having and this contradiction between… I was learning, in school, about climate change and about the climate crisis, while on the other hand passively going about life as normal.

Ideally, I wanted an electric car, that was out of the price range at the time, and I was looking at all these other alternatives online. There were a bunch of cool velomobiles but, being a self-conscious high schooler, I really wanted something that I thought looked cool and wasn’t super low to the ground, as well. Would fit all my school stuff, my stuff for track practice. I started playing around with taking these concepts and doing some drawings. Eventually, I went to my dad. Both of us, we like doing projects together, we were very mechanically inclined, I was working as a bike mechanic at the time, and we said, “Well, why don’t we try to make one?” This was just as a one-off, basically, for me to be able to ride to school.

We spent about a year researching and prototyping. I think it was maybe a year and a half until we finished our first one. It was super cool, it worked mostly how we wanted it to. Obviously, there were a bunch of tweaks that we would make later on. But then, at that point, my dad, Kevin, he decided that he liked this so much that he wanted one, so we built a second one. At that point, we were completely sold on the idea of the PEBL, we started to realize the potential possibility that it had, and we decided to go into business. We ended up making three more prototypes after that, and then we launched a Kickstarter campaign, which brought us into our production facility. Six years on from the beginning, but three years after the Kickstarter, this is where we are today.

A Cool Startup

Armando: Erin, how did they draw you in?

Erin: I actually got the job because one of my good friends was working for the company before she started graduate school this semester. She called me and told me that she’d just gotten a job at this cool startup that was local to us, and that they also needed a second person. It was exactly the kind of job that I was looking for. I interviewed with Nevin the next week, and I’ve been with the company ever since.

Armando: So, Erin, did the job come with a PEBL? Do you ride one to work?

Erin: I don’t, sadly, but we do have a PEBL in our warehouse that is available to the staff to use. I have definitely driven it, and gone around and done some of my marketing with it. It’s really fun to drive, and that has definitely been one of the perks of the job, having a PEBL available to me.

What is the PEBL?

Armando: Maybe you can both address this, but a moment ago I referred to riding a PEBL. Erin, I think you said, and maybe it was a way to correct me, driving a PEBL. Do we think of it as a bike, as a microcar, a velomobile? What is the proper terminology for a PEBL?

Nevin: Right. It’s a good question. We actually switch back between the two, riding and driving. What we’re looking for right now is the term that everyone will know a microcar, e-trike by in the future. Currently, we call it a microcar-e-rike because it combines what it is: it’s an e-trike, but it is also a microcar. So, right now, we switch back and forth between ride or drive, and we’re perfectly fine using either one.

Armando: So, this is not a perfect answer, but I suppose that one distinction could be whether or not you have to pedal. Again, this is not perfect because, for example, the EVELO Compass is an electric trike. It looks like a trike. It rides like a trike, but has a throttle, you don’t always have to pedal. I believe that is true of the PEBL too. It has a throttle. Correct?

Nevin: Yeah, that’s right. You don’t have to pedal. It has its own throttle, it has cruise control, exterior lighting. It has its own little trunk, windshield wiper, heater. That’s what puts in a different category from a velomobile or, I guess, any e-trike, is that it has its own throttle and it has all the other similar basic features to a car that make it usable on roads 99 percent of the time.

Legal Status

Armando: How does the government classify the PEBL? We just spoke about it not being quite an electric trike, it’s not quite a velomobile, it is sort of a minicar. If it was an electric trike, having a throttle would make it a class 2 electric bike, but how does the government classify it?

Nevin: You want to take that, Erin?

Erin: Yeah. I actually have been doing quite a bit of research on that lately because I’m getting a lot of inquiries from out clients. Right now, it really does vary state to state because velomobiles and e-bikes like ours are pretty recent on the market. It’s something that states are gaining out on their own, but we do typically fall into a class 2. I know that in Washington state, we’re a class 2, in a lot of New England states, we are, but right now there isn’t really one uniform federal law classifying velomobiles or e-bikes like the PEBL. It really is state to state, but is something that we’re obviously researching for our clients before they purchase to make sure that everything is on the up-and-up.

Armando: Sure, that makes sense. So, on a one-by-one, customer-by-customer basis, you’re helping them to know how the PEBL is classified where they ride. You’re probably guiding them regarding what they need to do to meet local requirements.

Erin: Exactly.

Nevin: Correct.

Erin: Yeah.

Nevin: In almost every state, it’s considered an e-bike. In those states where they have started to split it up into the three-tier classification, it’s, “What tier does it fit into?” and it’s usually the second tier. It’s rare that there’s a state that this doesn’t fit into some type of e-bike classification.

Erin: Exactly.

Armando: So, in most places it would not need a special license, it wouldn’t need tags, and I could still drive or ride the PEBL on the roads. Is that correct?

Erin: Yes. There are some states that require people to at least have a learner’s permit to operate it, but we have not encountered a single state that’s required it to be licensed like a car.

PEBL Safety

Armando: What about safety? Are there safety concerns when you’re riding or driving a PEBL in traffic, and what do drivers think of it?

Nevin: That’s a good question.

Erin: Yeah.

Nevin: It’s a main feature. We actually consider the PEBL to be safer than a traditional bike, from our experience over these past six years riding it on public roads. We find that cars typically treat the PEBL with more respect than they would a typical bike.

For instance, say you have a situation where cars are coming from both directions and you’re on the side of the road. The car behind you, we find, will, much more of the time, wait to pass you before the other car from the other side passes. That combined with the fact that you’re fully enclosed so you have a protective shell, and you have all of the same lighting that a car would have, from our experience we’ve found it’s much safer.

Erin: I would say that I agree. I’ve heard from a lot of our clients, when I ask for feedback, that the fact that the PEBL has headlights the way a car does, as Nevin said, does make drivers look at the PEBL differently than they would a traditional bicycle, and they do give it a bit of a wider berth than they would otherwise. We have heard from many people that they feel perfectly confident and secure driving it on the road.

Nevin: Right, and then there’s the visibility aspect, as well. It’s presence is much different and much more substantial than a bike, so you’ll be in less of situation where cars won’t see you when they’re taking a left-hand turn; similar situation that motorcycles have. The PEBL has a presence, so they’re able to spot you much easier.

Better for the Environment

Armando: Earlier, Nevin, you mentioned that when you were building the prototype with your dad, or maybe it was even when you became interested in building a velomobile to begin with, protecting the environment was part of your motivation. Would you both speak a little bit about how car alternatives like the PEBL, like the electric bikes we build at EVELO, protect the environment? Maybe even talk about why that’s important.

Nevin: Sure.

Erin: Yeah.

Nevin: It comes down to the amount of cars on the road and what you’re doing rather than driving. Compared to a car, the PEBL gets around 1,000 mpg, equivalent. I don’t know what a bike gets. It definitely gets even more than that, but the PEBL is extremely efficient and that goes for all e-bikes in general. So, you’re just simply not using as much energy going place to place, when you’re using this alternative transportation as you are in a car; you’re towing around 3,000 lbs of extra weight with you. The PEBL weighs 300 lbs, so it’s a tenth of the weight, basically. The PEBL is meant for more urban environments, shorter commutes, so you’re not accelerating to the same types of speeds. There’s more efficiency built in there. You’re not wasting as much energy accelerating and decelerating. That’s really the main thing. Erin, do you want to add to that?

Ride Sharing a PEBL

Erin: Yeah. In terms of our long-term goals, as well, for our environmental impact, right now, myself and our sales director are working on potential ride share programs with the PEBL. We do have one thing that’s going on right now with a local town where we’re in talks with the government municipality about selling them a fleet of PEBLs that they would then rent out to their citizens, the way Citi Bike is doing in New York City and elsewhere, to allow people in their town to use their cars less but to still have a reliable mode of transport that they can get their groceries or their prescriptions in. That’s also something that we want to expand to college campuses or campgrounds so that, in multiple places where we congregate and usually bring our cars to get to, we can now cut out some of that by having the PEBL available instead.

So, if you are going to a college somewhere and you bring a car with you, and you’re driving through campus in the town that your college is in, emitting all of these toxins into the atmosphere, we’re hoping to have alternative options on college campuses, eventually, where a student doesn’t have to bring their car and can just rely on a solar-charged PEBL instead.

Armando: Oh wow, and solar charged. Is that the case for the current PEBLs?

Erin: It is an option on the PEBL to have the solar roof, and we do have quite a few customers who are going with it. It seems to be something where the last, I’d say, half dozen of our clients already have solar panels on their roof, so they’re looking to add the PEBL and they already have all of the materials and the charging dock necessary for it. So the solar roof is one of our most popular features, yes.

Armando: So, learning that you’re trying to make the PEBL the Uber, if you will, of alternative transportation ride sharing, I’m wondering about how many are in service. It’s been a few years since the Kickstarter project, I hope you don’t mind that I ask, but are you selling hundreds of PEBLs or dozens?

Erin: At this point, we’re in the dozens but, with our new ride share programs that we’re looking to do, we’re hoping to expand and have that number raised quite substantially. That’s really, I would say, Nev, a goal of ours.

Nevin: Yeah, that, and we have a couple of other potential initiatives, as well, for multi-user use cases. Right now, we’re still early stages, in the dozens, but looking to be in the hundreds by this time next year and expanding even more after that.

Can I Have One?

Armando: So, maybe this is a positive sign: as I was preparing for the podcast, I asked some of our product development and customer service folks if they had any questions they wanted me to ask you about the PEBL, and there are really two questions. One, I’ve asked already, which was about safety. The other question was this: “can I have one?”

Nevin: We’ll work on it. Soon they can rent it.

Erin: Yeah.

Armando: I suppose, if I try to translate a question like, “can I have one?” into something we can ask on this podcast, it is really a question about why the product, why the PEBL, might be desirable. I know, at EVELO, we ask every person who makes a purchase why they bought, and we want to understand what helped them make that choice. Was it quality, great customer service, a great warranty? What is that for the PEBL? Give us the elevator pitch for the PEBL.

Erin: When somebody calls me and says, “I’m looking for an alternative transport, why should it be the PEBL?” I often say that, first of all, it’s really fun to drive. It’s cute, but also, on top of that, it’s just a good product: the back hatch opens up into a trunk where you can fit six to eight bags of groceries; it has a back seat; it has the potential for 100 miles of range on a charge, and; it’s efficient while not being too over-the-top. For me, alternative transport isn’t meant to be like a car, where we want the newest, flashiest, fastest model. We want the thing that accomplishes what we need it to, but without all of the negative side effect of a car or a gas-emitting vehicle.

That’s what I really like about the PEBL, is that it’s not a thing where you’re like, “Okay. Well, I guess I’ll settle for a PEBL because I want to be greener.” It’s something that you’re happy to switch to, and something that excites you about doing your part to try to limit your emissions. That’s what I really find to be the best thing about the PEBL, is that nobody ever really finds that they’re settling for that by going green. They’re actually excited to make the switch to the PEBL.

Armando: That makes sense. We hear that a lot at EVELO. It is not a compromise, you ride it and love it, it’s a lot of fun, and the PEBL looks like a lot of fun too. I watched a little video you had on YouTube where someone was driving a PEBL past a Road Closed sign, and it just looks like they were heading for a fun little adventure.

Erin: That was me! Oh yeah, that was me. That was really fun. That was earlier this year. I think the reason why we did that was because I went from a paved road onto a dirt road to really show the versatility of the PEBL. We do also have to off-road switch, which boosts the PEBL up to 1,500 watts. A lot of people get that if they’re going to be driving around their property or off-road, things like that. It’s a pretty popular thing. That video was fun because we got to show how the PEBL can do more than just paved roads.

Year Around Transportation

Armando: I’m enjoying learning about the PEBL and your company. Are there some things that I have not asked about or mentioned that you want to share with our audience?

Erin: I know that I wanted to quell some fears of any potential customers out there. I get a lot of inquiries from people towards the end of the year saying, “I really want a PEBL, but I think I’ll wait till the spring because it’s about to be cold out,” but the PEBL is actually able to be driven in all weathers. We’re in New England, and both Nevin and his dad drive their PEBL all through the year. You can get the heater installed, the doors fully close, so there’s never a bad time to buy a PEBL.

Armando: Makes a lot of sense. I very much appreciate having you on the podcast. Thank you for joining me.

Erin: Thank you for having us.

Nevin: Yeah, thank you so much for having us.

Armando: I also want to thank you, the person listening to this, The Electric Bike Podcast from EVELO. I hope that you enjoyed learning about the PEBL, and learning, perhaps, a bit more about alternative transportation generally.

This podcast is really for you. We want you to find it interesting, entertaining and useful, so I want to know what you want to know. I want you to tell me what topics I should cover on the podcast. To do that, send an email to contact@evelo.com. Let me know what you want to hear about.

I also want you to go to evelo.com. Take a look at our Free Fit Consultation, it’ll help you decide which bike’s the right fit. Look at The Complete Electric Bike Buyer’s Guide. You can buy that on Amazon or you can get it for free on our site. Nice, right?

I hope you enjoyed this episode. Take care until next time

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